Elephants in perspective | Sunday Observer

Elephants in perspective

From the epic elephant battle on the banks of Kalawewa, the elephant-train collision in Habarana to the fates of the aged Bandula and the neglected Kalana, experts speak of the what, when and why of elephants

For several months this year, elephants have made headlines, mostly on their sad plight in the modern world. From the controversy surrounding the plans to relocate the only two remaining elephants in Sinharaja, to the multiple elephant deaths in the marsh in the East, the reports brought in tragic news. Last week, elephants were yet again in the limelight, due to the albeit appalling deaths of four elephants hit by a train near Habarana. Then, there was the report of the elephant battle near Kalawewa, where one majestic creature fell in defeat. With regard to the domesticated elephants, the fates of Bandula, the aged jumbo at the Dehiwela zoo and Kalana from the Vishnu Temple of Devinuwara, who were chained and restricted from movement, remain undecided.

A battle for lady love at Kala wewa

News reports of an epic battle between a tusker and a large adult male on the banks of Kalawewa came flooding in at the turn of the week. According to the reports, the large male fell after being injured with multiple wounds from its opponent’s tusks. A number of elephants were then observed gathered around the carcass, a feat both international and local media interpreted as paying last respects to the fallen giant who was considered the leader of the herd.

However, experts argue that some of this is far from the factual, pointing at the scientific findings that clearly indicate elephants have matriarchal societies.

“The leader of an elephant herd is a female matriarch, generally the oldest and the most experienced of the herd,” says Environmentalist, Sujeewa Chandana, adding that the adults in an elephant herd consists of females, while the males in the herd are no older than 15 years of age. Once the males reach sexual maturity, 13 to 15 years, they leave the herd, or are chased away by the rest of the herd. This, he says, is a behaviour pattern of elephants to prevent inbreeding within the herd.

The male adults, live a solitary life and are referred to as lone elephants. At times, two to three of these loners get together to form a small herd, for example, when they enter villages to feed on crops.

“Otherwise, they roam in solitude within their respective range along the migratory path during the daytime, and gather at the place where they drink water, in the evening,” Sujeewa says.

These male adults reach a state known as ‘musth’, during which they become aggressive, agitated and roam in search of a female to mate. “Elephants reach musth three times a year and remain in this state for approximately two months. During the months of August and September, which fall in the dry season, elephants reach musth,” Sujeewa explains. However, reaching musth does not enable the male elephant to mate with a female. The female also has to enter the musth period, which only lasts three to six days. When the female reaches musth it releases a secretion, which the male can smell. Then, all the males within a certain distance follow this smell to find their mate, sometimes travelling for periods of time, without consuming food or drink.

Speaking of the battle between the two giants on the bank of Kalawewa, Sujeewa says it is an instance where the two males reached the vicinity of their potential mate, and clashed to win her love. “The winner gets to mate with the female. However, the unfortunate fact is sometimes the fights last for up to three days at a time, by which time the musth period of the female is over,” he says.

At times three or four males fight before one winner emerges, the fittest and the strongest elephant, Sujeewa says, a process by nature to ensure passing down of good genes from generation to generation. Although rarely observed by the elephants, these fights are a regular occurrence in the wild, when more than one male vie for the same female for mating.

In this instance, as the opponent of the fallen was a tusker, it had a better advantage in power, Sujeewa says.

The fallen hero was then surrounded by about 10 elephants, who sniffed and inspected the body, as shown by a footage that went viral in the social media. This, according to Sujeewa, is the typical behaviour of the elephants, when they come across a dead elephant. He adds that this is common in the wild although not frequently observed by humans. “When they see a carcass, elephants gather around and touch it with their trunks. They do this even if they come across an elephant bone while roaming in the wild. This is very normal,” Sujeewa says.

He added that the Kalawewa area is a transit point for elephants who gather around it at this time of the year, due to water availability. After a period, they will migrate from this point, he says.

Conservation Biologist of the Colorado State University, George Wittemyer, has told ‘National Geographic’ that “ Elephants have a fascination with death which is difficult to interpret.”

Although elephants have respect for their dead, the intreraction is currently not fully understood. Everytime, the interaction is different and this, says Wittemyer, indicates deeper emotional lives the elephants have, which cannot be explained in evolutionary context and cannot be easily studied.

Bandula: The aged king

Bandula, the beloved elephant of the Zoological Gardens, Dehiwela, who spent almost seven decades of his life there, is currently ailing. There has been a hue and a cry on freeing Bandula, by the local and international community. Various suggestions surfaced as being best for Bandula. Indian Union Minister, Maneka Gandhi has written to President Maithripala Sirisena, requesting that Bandula be freed and sent to Ridiyagama Safari Park. Other activists suggest the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. Other environmentalists believe Bandula is too old to survive by itself.

Sujeewa says that since Bandula is aged and ailing he needs a rest. “It is good if he can be taken away from his concrete shelter and allowed to live in an enclosed space with a stream and food, without being chained,” he says. At the same time, he insists that Bandula cannot be released to the wild as he is too old to adapt and the local elephants will attack him. Also, Bandula, having spent his whole life at the zoo, is unable to identify food in the wild, Sujeewa adds.

Chairman of the Species Conservation Centre, Pubudu Weerarathna says considered his age, the best option for Bandula is to release him to the proposed open elephant area at the Dehiwela zoo by removing his chains.“Since Bandula is used to the zoo and living with other animals, he will not be able to adapt to the Ridiyagama climate,” he says.

According to Director General of the zoo, Dhammika Malsinghe, Bandula is now partially blind due to age. Also, he has very thin skin, which cannot rub against anything. “ He is well looked after at the zoo, we take him for walks in the morning and in the evening and for a bath at 11 am,” she says.

She adds that Bandula will be given a quarter acre area built for free roaming elephants at the zoo, once the more aggressive elephants occupying the area are relocated. “ We are trying to gradually remove his chains, maybe by using a single chain on him in the beginning. He can be quite aggressive, he once smashed an entire shed,” she says.

Due to his left eye infection, which has caused partial blindness and a papilloma like growth on his foot pad, which makes it difficult for him to work, Bandula has to be regularly treated and monitored, says Veterinary Surgeon of the National Zoo, Madusha Perera.

It appears that, at least for the moment Bandula has to remain at the zoo, hopefully under better living conditions. In the meantime, activists who are concerned for Bandula, should maybe focus on improving the lives of other captivated elephants in the land, before it is too late, so that there will be no more Bandulas in the future.

Kalana, the servant of God Katharagama

Kalana, the jumbo who originally belonged to the Pinnawala herd and gifted by former President, Ranasinghe Premadasa to the Devinuwara Vishnu Devalaya in 1989, was neglected by the Basnayake Nilame of the Devalaya and his mahout. It was reported that he was tied at the same place by heavy chains for around three years and as a result, the chain has cut into the skin of a leg, which has become infected. Certain animal rights activists have demanded that Kalana be released to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, instead of leaving him at Ridiyagama Safari Park, where he currently remains.

However, Sujeewa says this is not a good solution as Kalana will again be chained in Pinnawala. “Earlier on, there was a similar instance where an elephant was relocated to Pinnawala and remained tied at the same place for about 12 years. Kalana should be freed from the chains at least gradually, not tied up. At least he should not be chained on all four legs,” he says.

Sujeewa sees the ‘Ath Athuru Sevana’ in Udawalawe as a better option than Pinnawala. “There are experienced officers to look after the elephants and to rehabilitate them there,” he says, adding that Kalana, although from the Pinnawala herd, has become agressive since being tied up at the Devalaya. As he is aggressive he cannot be released to the wild. Further, as he was domesticated, like Bandula, he also doesn’t know to identify food sources in the wild.

Weerarathna on the other hand, believes Kalana should be returned to Pinnawala, where he is originally from, since he might calm down and become less aggressive. “ His mentality might change thus it might be possible to free him from the chains,” Weerarathna says.

Trains: The elephant’s bane

Early hours of Tuesday morning brought the heart wrenching reports of a tanker train transporting oil from the East, colliding with and killing a pregnant mother elephant and two elephant calves, close to Habarana. The reports, along with the gruesome pictures of the elephant carcasses, led to a public outcry requesting for measures to prevent recurrence of such tragedies.

Following this, General Manager Railways, Dilantha Fernando, told Sunday Observer, that at the discussions held with the Minister of Transportation, Nimal Siripala de Silva, there are plans to install a sensor system which will remove the elephants from the track when a train is approaching. “ An expert has already developed this project and carried out a pilot project in Mannar, which works by broadcasting a wavelength of frequency that will scare the elephants from the railway track,” Fernando says.

He adds that the Minister is looking into allocating funds for the project, and has requested for a proposal to install this system in 83 locations of the country, where the railway tracks interfere with elephant crossing points.

The Inventor of the system, Irosh Perera says that the system uses elephants’ own communication method to warn them of approaching trains, through a system of devices and sensors. “Elephants use infrasonic alpha waves to communicate. I have studied their communications to differentiate their warning signals. These warning wavelengths will be used to scare away elephants on the track, once a train is approaching,” Perera says.

Perera adds that a feasibility study will be conducted to identify the exact locations where the elephants cross the railway track. Speaking of the pilot project in Mannar, he said that it was a 100 percent success.

“However, the maximum probability of preventing an accident through installing this system at these locations is 80 percent,” Perera says, adding that there is a 20 percent chance of an accident taking place at some other location.

Director General, Department of Wildlife Conservation, M.G.C. Sooriyabandara says it is important to find the best location to monitor a pilot project, prior to nationwide installation of the system. “ Although, a pilot project was carried out in Mannar, the project had no communication with the Department,” he says.

However, Sooriyabandara hopes the project will help reach heights in minimising elephant deaths due to train collisions, something the Department has been struggling for two decades to achieve. “The situations gradually improved, hopefully this project will minimise elephant deaths due to train collisions,” he said.

Most of the environmentalists, activists and even the public assumed that the cause of this particular collision was either high speeding by the Engine Driver or another form of negligence. “This appears to be an act of negligence, where the speed limit was not adhered to. This is the dry season where elephants roam for water and this was a place where elephants crossed,” Weerarathna says.

He believes speed limits should be imposed for both trains passing elephant crossings and for oil tankers. He admits that at times, the Engine Driver cannot see the road in the night as the old train lights are not very powerful and the driver has only a small narrow glass window to observe the track through.

“To minimise these incidents, when building railway tracks in the future, it is important to elevate the track or build underpasses at points where animals cross,” he says.

Speaking of the cause of the collision, Fernando says since there were no witnesses, there is only the statement by the Engine Driver and the Guard, which says they observed a herd of approximately 25 elephants on the track. “When the horn blared, they have moved away from the track, but as the train was approaching closer, three have climbed back on the track.”

This is a hilly area, therefore, the possibility of the train having sped has to be eliminated, he says, adding that drivers have to be cautious in the areas where elephants frequently cross, which are marked by boards cautioning possible elephant crossings.